Citizens vote against change in legal status of La Poste

In order to mark their opposition to the change in legal status of La Poste, which is the subject of a draft bill, a group of associations, trade unions and political parties organised a citizens’ consultation on 3 October 2009. More than 2.3 million citizens took part, with 90% of them voting against the measure. The initiative highlights French people’s strong attachment to local public services, as well as a growing appetite for more direct forms of democracy.

Background

Under a bill (in French) transposing the European directive opening up the postal market to competition by 1 January 2011 (Directive 2002/39/EC), the French postal operator La Poste is to become a limited liability company (Société anonyme, SA) on 1 January 2010. This is to enable La Poste, currently a public establishment, to make the necessary preparations for a liberalised postal services market. Such a change in its legal status would make it possible to increase its capital by €2.7 billion, which includes €1.5 billion from the Deposit and Securities Fund (Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, CDC). The French postal operator has major debts, amounting to €6 billion, which is twice the amount of its own funds. Moreover, mail distributed by La Poste has diminished significantly – more specifically, by 6.3% during the first six months of 2009 – especially because of the drop in direct marketing by mail order companies. It is estimated that the volume of mail will fall by another 30% between now and 2015 due to competition from the internet.

Trade union opposition to bill

The country’s trade unions have expressed their concerns about the employment status of post office staff, owing to the impending changes (FR0502107F, FR0405105F). All of the country’s six main trade unions have voiced their concerns – namely, the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), the Independent Union Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (Union syndicale Solidaire, Unitaire, Démocratique, SUD), the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force ouvrière, CGT-FO), the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) and the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff – General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l’encadrement – Confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC).

The trade unions confirmed their opposition to the plans (FR0810019I), which they believe may lead to privatisation, as has already been the case in recent years for three major public companies – namely, the state-owned telecommunications service provider France Télécom (FR9706149F), French Electricity (Electricité de France, EDF) (FR0406104F) and the French public service energy distributor Gaz de France (GDF) (FR0509104F). Their concerns also focus on maintaining La Poste’s public services role – encompassing its universal mail service, territorial planning, banking accessibility and distribution of the press – especially in rural towns and villages, whose mayors fear that post office closures would lead to greater depopulation.

Given the opposition to the bill, the government and spokespeople of the presidential majority have issued many statements denying the relevance of the term ‘privatisation’, which is used by opponents. In a letter to mayors throughout France, the country’s Prime Minister, François Fillon, undertook to ‘make huge […] investment in La Poste [in order for] the public service roles that La Poste fulfils today, as well as the necessary financial resources, to be guaranteed’.

Mobilisation against privatisation

Despite such assurances, on 22 September 2009, a national strike was called by CGT, SUD, CFTC and CGT-FO, with support also from CFDT, mobilising workers to varying degrees – by 22.2% according to management and by 40% according to the trade unions. However, according to the postal unions affiliated to CFE-CGC and to the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA), which respectively received 2.7% and 3.7% of the votes in the last workplace elections, ‘the change in legal status and increase in capital are necessary in order to be able to face up to competition in a free postal services market’.

At the same time, a referendum by secret ballot was organised on 3 October by the ‘National Committee against the privatisation of La Poste’ (Comité national contre la privatisation de La Poste), which brings together associations, trade unions and political parties – namely, the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste, PS), the French Communist Party (Parti Communiste Français, PCF) and the Greens (Les Verts). The ballot was held on the streets and in some town halls, which made rooms available to the anti-privatisation committee.

Citizens’ consultation initiative

The organisation of this national citizens’ consultation is considered to be along the lines of the Swiss style of voting. It is provided for by the changes to the French Constitution in 2008, which are not yet implemented but introduce the notion of a ‘popular referendum’. This means that a referendum can be organised at the request of at least 10% of French electors, with the support of at least 20% of members of parliament (MPs). The French initiative led to discussions on the issue submitted to the voters, namely that: ‘The government wants to change the status of La Poste in order to privatise it, do you agree with this plan?’ However, the government considered the question to be biased.

It should be mentioned that the initiative was not unanimously supported by the trade unions. The CFDT National Secretary in charge of the postal sector, Nadine Capdeboscq, spoke of ‘a kind of giant petition’, adding that the question asked ‘borders on demagogy’. CFDT at the confederation level even referred to the initiative as ‘populist voting’.

However, the success of the measure cannot be denied, with ‘more than two million voters’ – or 3% of the population – taking part according to the organisers. The latter consider this as proof of people’s attachment to a local public service and are calling for a national referendum.

On 2 November, the bill on changing the status of La Poste was submitted to the Senate for discussions. The discussions will then continue in the French parliament (Assemblée nationale). Opponents have warned that they will mount strong opposition to the bill at both stages.

Commentary

Two lessons can be learnt from this case. Firstly, La Poste remains a public establishment with strong symbolic significance. Along with the local school and town hall, the post office is emblematic of the Republic and French people appear to be strongly attached to it, especially in rural areas, where it seems to be one of the last strongholds against depopulation. A second significant factor is the ‘citizens’ consultation’, which constitutes a new form of social mobilisation in France and which ‘would seem to reflect French citizens’ appetite for more direct forms of democracy – as is also reflected in the primary elections in political parties.

Yves Lochard, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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